Some 2,000 illegally trafficked elephant tusks and hundreds of
finished ivory products erupted in a ball of fire Tuesday as
Cameroonian authorities conducted what was believed to be one of the
largest burnings of poached wildlife goods in African history.
Setting the pyre aflame in a sandy square in Cameroon’s capital,
Samantha Power, America’s U.N. ambassador, joined Cameroonian
officials in hailing the ceremony as symbolic of their commitment to
win the war against illegal smuggling of animal products.
Central Africa’s forest elephants have declined in number by
two-thirds between 2002 and 2012.
“All of our countries can and must do more,” Power said. The burning
sends a clear message, she added, that “the only place ivory belongs
and the only value ivory has is on elephants.”
The heap included ivory chess boards, beads, totem poles and even
miniature elephant sculptures, all intermixed with the raw tusks.
Cameroonian officials said the pile totaled 3.5 tons of tusk alone,
though that figure couldn’t be verified. What’s certain is the
merchandise was worth millions of dollars. The pyre will burn for
Philip Ngole Ngwese, Cameroon’s minister of forestry and wildlife,
said the seized tusks and ivory, much of which originated abroad, were
now “beyond reach.” He also described the human costs of poaching,
mourning several guides and park rangers who have been killed in
Cameroon’s biggest city, Douala, is a port through which much of the
region’s trafficked goods transit overseas.
Power, on a weeklong trip to promote the battle against the Muslim
extremist group Boko Haram, also met President Paul Biya and other
senior Cameroonian officials. She announced $40 million in new U.S.
humanitarian aid to the region.
The United States has some 200 special operations forces in Cameroon
advising and assisting African troops in the fight. Power, making the
first trip to the country by a U.S. Cabinet member in a
quarter-century, stressed the need for Cameroonian soldiers to
exercise restraint amid reports they’ve sometimes targeted civilians.
“Any fight against terrorism has to be comprehensive,” she said,
echoing remarks she made in Cameroon’s embattled north on Monday.
Political inclusiveness, good governance, economic development and
combatting extremism at the grassroots level, she said, “are every bit
as critical as one’s military campaign itself.”
Smoke billowed from the pyre as the ivory tusks turned black and
Ivory-burning ceremonies aren’t a gesture universally appreciated –
even in Cameroon. Some wonder why the valuable tusks aren’t reused in
some capacity, given the elephants are already dead.
Echoing such sentiments, one local journalist asked Power why the
tusks aren’t preserved in museums for future generations that may
never see elephants.
“I don’t want to think about contingency plans for if elephants are
eliminated from the wild,” Power said.
The event and Power’s participation underscored the Obama
administration’s effort to prioritize the fight against wildlife
trafficking. In doing so, it is trying to break a multibillion-dollar
criminal industry that officials say sometimes interweaves with drug
trafficking and even terrorist enterprises. The U.S. held its own
ivory crushes in 2013 and 2015.
In March, a U.S. task force said a “turning point” had been reached in
the global endeavor to strengthen enforcement, reduce demand and
expand international cooperation. But much ultimately depends on China
cracking down, because its citizens are driving global demand.
As a port of exit, Cameroon plays a major role in snuffing out ivory
smuggling from Central Africa, where several countries are struggling
to assert control over their own territory, and national parks are
often poorly protected. Cameroon, too, has suffered from poaching.
Four years ago, armed poaching gangs from Sudan massacred more than
half of the elephants in the Bouba Njida National Park in northern
Cameroon. The raids highlighted the vulnerability of elephants even in
stable African countries. Biya, who is 83, has ruled Cameroon for more
than 30 years.